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The Other Terrorism Problem

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A JUSTICE DEPARTMENT report observed, “The feature distinguishing police from all other groups in society is their authority to apply coercive force.” Americans are taught to view police as trustworthy symbols of authority. Programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) put “Officer Friendly” in classrooms in order to endear law enforcement to children at an early age. The Clinton administration, with its much ballyhooed plan to use federal tax dollars to put 100,000 more local police on the streets, presumed that Americans would appreciate an expanded army of blue.

Many policemen are fine, upstanding public servants who do a commendable job of aiding and protecting Americans in need. However, in some locales, police pose a grave threat to public safety. Consider the Prince George’s County, Maryland, police department. In the last decade, police in that department killed or maimed more unarmed people than the Unabomber and the Aryan Nation combined. It has a worse human rights record than the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And yet — whenever those cops appear in the streets or in court — they are supposedly entitled to a presumption that they are serving the public.

The Washington Post, in a series last July, highlighted some of the department’s accomplishments: “Since 1990, Prince George’s police have shot 122 persons, killing 47. Almost half of those shot were unarmed; many had committed no crime.” Prince George’s police kill citizens more often than do the police of any other major department in the country.

Apparently, the only thing required for a shooting to be justified in Prince George’s County is to have a government employee pull the trigger. Among the shootings the police department ruled as justified are these:

An unarmed construction worker was shot in the back after he was detained in a fast-food restaurant. An unarmed suspect died in a fusillade of 66 bullets as he tried to flee from police in a car. A homeless man was shot when police mistook his portable radio for a gun. And an unarmed man was killed after he pulled off the road to relieve himself.

Some local policing practices appear borrowed from South Africa in its police-state glory days. The Post noted,

No one knows how many people have died while in the custody of Prince George’s officers. Police said they don’t keep track of such deaths. By examining autopsy reports and other documents, however, the Washington Post was able to identify 12 people who have died in police custody since 1990.

The Post discovered the death of one person in police custody from a worker’s compensation filing by a policeman who requested disability payments because of “emotional problems” he suffered after permanently subduing the arrestee. Several suspects died after being severely beaten while wearing handcuffs. Medical examiners have ruled at least two of the deaths in police custody to have been homicide — yet “no Prince George’s officer involved in an in-custody death has been disciplined by the department.”

P.G. police do not always rely on guns to wreak havoc. Sometimes they simply set their dogs loose. In most parts of the country, police dogs are trained to “guard and bark” to stop perpetrators in their tracks. In Prince George’s County, dogs are trained to “find and bite,” according to one canine officer’s court testimony.

Police dogs attacked 60 civilians in one year — and have also ripped into police officers scores of times in the last decade. One German shepherd “attacked its police handler three times and sent as many as 40 other people to the hospital during its career,” the Post reported. Prince George’s County has paid millions to settle excessive force complaints from dog victims who, in many cases, were not resisting the police.

Protecting the cops
The Prince George’s County government is scrupulous and idealistic when it comes to respecting the rights of killer cops. Police are protected by the “Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights” — a Maryland law (similar to laws in many other states) that prohibits the questioning of a police officer who has used deadly force until at least 10 days after he has shot someone. In Prince George’s County, there is no greater offense than prematurely asking a cop why he gunned down a citizen. The Post noted that “a lawyer or a police union official is always summoned to the scene of a shooting to make sure no one speaks to the officer who pulled the trigger.” A toothless citizen police oversight panel complained that the 10-day rule “invites abuse . . . and raises serious concerns about collusion and the code of silence among officers.”

And even after the 10-day muzzle expires, “nothing police say can be used against them in any criminal proceedings. Their statements must be kept confidential by internal-affairs investigators,” the Post noted. This bizarre policy might actually be unnecessary. One homicide detective who looked into the suspicious death of a man in police custody explained that he did not even try to question the two policeman involved “because he didn’t want to violate their constitutional rights against self-incrimination.” In many cases, police are not questioned about shooting civilians until months after the victim died.

The entire system of government in Prince George’s County appears devoted to covering up official killings. County lawyers refused to provide internal police records of police shooting investigations because it would be “contrary to the public interest” — even though state law requires that such information be revealed. In 1998 and 1999, every excessive-force complaint against a Prince George’s County policeman was dismissed by the internal affairs department.

The personnel records of cops with dubious records are routinely expunged. The Post noted that one P.G. policeman in 1993 “shot and critically wounded an unarmed man outside the Prince George’s County Courthouse. Two years later, he opened fire again, seriously wounding an unarmed motorist in Mitchellville. In 1998, a federal jury ordered him to pay $113,000 to a pregnant woman he had attacked in a rage after her dog defecated on his lawn.” Amazingly, this cop “is still a Prince George’s police officer and has been promoted to corporal. His disciplinary record is spotless — the shootings, the lawsuits and the complaints all have been wiped clean from his file.”

Wayne Curry, the first black chief executive officer of Prince George’s County (which is the nation’s most affluent majority-black county), revels in the bad-boy record of his police, declaring last year, “People don’t want no pansy police force.” In June, a few weeks before the Post series hit the streets, when touring a new police facility, “Curry seemed to delight in mocking accounts of police misconduct, stage-whispering to the [police] chief as they passed a newly installed video camera, ‘How will we conceal all your wickedness?’” the Post reported.

The local police union was outraged by media criticism last year and by the failure of the police chief to stand up and defend accused officers. The police responded with “blue flu” — “de-policing” — a work slowdown. While the homicide rate has declined throughout the nation in recent years, the homicide rate rose 65 percent in Prince George’s County last year.

If an American citizen makes a $50 donation to Hamas, he can be charged with underwriting terrorism and sentenced to five years in prison. However, officials of the U.S. Justice Department have given tens of millions of dollars to the Prince George’s County police department and yet have no liability regardless of how many innocent people are shot and killed by their grantee. The Justice Department and the FBI have conducted numerous investigations of the P.G. police but the federal efforts have had little or no impact.

In 1994, Congress passed a law requiring national record-keeping on police shootings. However, neither the Justice Department nor most local police departments have bothered to keep track of such trifles. As a result, it is difficult to know how many other police departments may have cops as trigger-happy — and as legally untouchable — as Prince George’s County’s.

The story of the Prince George’s County police department is a reminder that government agents often have far more arbitrary deadly power than most people realize. What will it take to wake up Americans to the danger from their protectors? The P.G. police have received massive scrutiny in part because of excellent investigations by the Washington Post and in part because of their proximity to the nation’s capital. But even with all the scrutiny, grave abuses continue.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.